Thursday, July 07, 2011

Tony Hoagland on Spirituality (But not really. Really he’s making another argument about manner.)

Or not.

Every time an essay from Tony Hoagland arrives, I’m intrigued. He has a knack for continually finding topics that I’m also very interested in, while invariably falling into an argument hostile to my take on the issue. So then, as I am here, I find myself having to respond in some way. That way is usually a few emails to friends, and then a simmer-down period, followed by either walking away from it, or saying something about it on this blog.

So here I am saying something about it on this blog.

The essay this time is titled, “Soul Radio: Three American Spiritualist Poets.” It’s in the July/August 2011 issue of APR.

The thing of it is that if he were just going to grab three poets (in this case Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield) and talk about how they use spirituality, I’d be fine with it. I’d make no argument about that. But Hoagland can’t stop there, he has to add the argument. Here’s some of his introduction:


In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment, the so-called “spiritual” poet runs pronounced risks. The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry. Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?

The work of so-called “wisdom poets,” like Lucille Clifton, or Jane Kenyon, or Carl Dennis, or Sharon Olds, or Stephen Dunn, or William Stafford, or W.S. Merwin, or Galway Kinnell, aren’t taught in many MFA programs; such poems aren’t, perhaps, viewed as difficult enough to need smart people to explain them. Against a postmodern background, to someone with a headful of indeterminacy poetics, their sincerity must seem, well, touchingly simplistic. After all, there isn’t enough time in the semester to visit and examine the obvious! And the interdependence of aesthetic difficulty, institutional learning, and officially sanctioned artistic value has to be maintained. Doesn’t it?

Moreover, such poets also renew our confusions about the difference between categories of art and spirituality, between poets and “teachers,” between poems and gospels, artists and seekers.


There’s a lot in those opening paragraphs to unpack. Here goes.

“In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment”

How much truth is there in this, his opening statement? First off, what does he mean by “odd,” “some corners,” “directness” and “sincerity”? I’m going to guess he’s saying that what’s going on now is an aberration, and in the past poetry was praised for its directness and sincerity. How far back do we want to go? Let’s jump to the canon. Shakespeare? Would you call his poetry direct and sincere? Hopkins? Whitman? Dickinson? Stevens? Eliot? Pound? You see where I’m going with this. My argument would also extend to many of the very poets he above praises. Take Kinnell, for instance. The Book of Nightmares, arguably his best book, is anything but a tour of sincerity and directness. To make the argument about sincerity and directness, even in poets often praised for it, one is going to have to reduce the poetry to a cartoon version of itself. Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams are good examples of that.

So, number one, I find nothing odd about the contemporary moment, where we want an art capable of taking on the fullness of life and spirituality in ways that don’t’ reduce it to a bumper sticker. Even Hoagland’s own poetry (the much talked about recent poem for example), like it or not, brings up complex subjects in ways that leave open a host of responses. How does one gauge sincerity? Was T.S. Eliot sincere? Was Elizabeth Bishop? How about Gertrude Stein? I would like to see a bullet list, please, of what criteria go in to making a work of art sincere. I think, what one will find with such a list is that the marks of sincerity are going to be tied to cultural normativity. If someone talks about things in conventional ways, ways everyone else is used to getting them, then it will be called sincere. One person’s sincerity will then be someone else’s simplicity. In that way, Hoagland’s right about the charge that could be leveled against these (or some of these) poets.

I have yet to see anyone embarrassed by the charge of sincerity. I’ve never seen it. I would like to hear one anecdote of someone being called, pejoratively, sincere. And then had a reaction of embarrassment. Show me if I’m wrong. This is often a charge against fringe aesthetics, that they, in their avant-garde or pseudo avant-garde manner, are somehow insincere. John Ashbery has been called that for years. Just for a second, let’s say he is insincere. If one is insincere, and is consistently so for 60 years of publishing, can one really be insincere? How long can you not mean it?

I’ve seen insincere young poets. Maybe I was one, even. Because when one is young, one is trying on hats. Some of those hats will just be wrong, insincere. You move on, if that’s the case.

[Word choice side note: Did you notice the two “so-called”s in his opening? “so-called ‘spiritual poet’” and “so-called ‘wisdom poets’”. It’s an old argument trick that is able to side-step the issue. Who calls them this? Are these real categories?]

“The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry.”

What does Hoagland make of the poetry of Rae Armantrout, then? What about C.D. Wright? Julie Carr? Wright and Carr, specifically, use direct testimony in their work. But even so, obliquity and testimony are not opposites. One could be interested in both or neither. Here’s a question: Is the journey to wisdom ever straight-forward? Not in my experience. One must cast about to discover things.

[Snarky side note: it’s good to see Hoagland finally got the spelling of “sophistication correct.” I was worried.]

When one is casting about, it can and will often look oblique to others. Paul Celan is a great example, but so is (I’m being generous to all aesthetics here and none of these examples should be taken as endorsement) Kay Ryan.

“Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?”

What a mistake to make an allusion to Dickinson here: tell it slant. First, Dickinson, in telling it slant, was a great example of both wisdom and spirituality. But beyond that, when does “telling it slant” mean that one must sign on for “meaning infinitely recedes as we approach”? The postmodern position on meaning is yes, it does recede, but that’s only when one is searching for final meaning. Take physics for example. The more we answer questions, the more we uncover more questions. So, in this way, meaning is receding, but many answers are popping up along the way. Hoagland’s reading of the postmodern dilemma is, at the very least, the kind of simplistic reading that infuses much of the poetry and criticism he supports.

And then, my final (kind of) point. About who is and who isn’t taught in MFA programs. First, MFA programs aren’t literature programs, so there are different questions that arise in constructing reading lists. In my MFA and PhD programs I read a variety of books, from Ben Johnson to Bin Ramke to Rosmarie Waldrop to Linda Gregg. It was all over the place.

This leads me to the three poets he talks about: Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield. I have nothing, as I said, against their poetry, but I do have something against the way he’s positioning them as if they were rebels of some sort, outsiders at the table. He describes them, generally, this way:

“In a time when ‘directness’ is unfashionable, they take the risk of addressing matters of faith.”


Let me remind you who these three people are he's talking about:

Linda Gregg’s first book of poems, Too Bright to See, was published in 1981. Since then, she has published several collections of poetry, including: All of It Singing (Graywolf Press, 2008), the 2009 recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award; In the Middle Distance (2006); Things and Flesh (1999); Chosen by the Lion (1994); The Sacraments of Desire (1991); Alma (1985); and Eight Poems (1982).

Gregg's honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Whiting Writer's Award, as well as multiple Pushcart Prizes. She was the 2003 winner of the Sara Teasdale Award and the 2006 PEN/Voelcker Award winner for Poetry.

She has taught at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. She currently lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.


Marie Howe’s most recent book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W. W. Norton, 2009) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her other collections of poetry include What the Living Do (1998) and The Good Thief (Persea, 1988), which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the 1987 National Poetry Series.

Stanley Kunitz selected her for a Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1988.

Her other awards include grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at Tufts University and Dartmouth College, among others. Currently she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Columbia University.


Jane Hirshfield received her B.A. from Princeton University in their first graduating class to include women. After that, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her books of poetry include After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Lives of the Heart (1997), The October Palace (1994), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), and Alaya (1982).

She is the author of Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and has also edited and translated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) with Mariko Aratani and Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994).

Her honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, Columbia University's Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets,

In addition to her work as a freelance writer and translator, Hirshfield has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and been Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati. She is currently on the faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars.


Similarly to the list of poets who are not taught as he says they should be in MFA programs (which I’m not sure he’s correct about, by the way), these three poets have all taught in some of the largest, most prestigious graduate programs in the country (which seems to defy logic, I mean, if these people all teach in these prestigious graduate programs, you know, what are they having students read?). As well, the awards they’ve won and the houses they’ve published with, are all large circulation (by poetry standards), prestigious houses.

If these poets are risking it all by being unfashionable, then fashion doesn’t seem to be minding one bit.

Here’s a bit from his conclusion:

“One notices, in our era, how much presumption simplicity requires—how much ease and confidence, or is it conviction, or need?—is required to aim for wisdom; to seek the way inside appearances and beyond transience. So much poetry now has lowered the stakes, settled for the habits of beauty.”

That’s a rather clumsy first sentence. “Simplicity requires presumption to aim for wisdom.” Is that what he’s saying? Or is it more: “Simplicity requires presumption—which includes ease and confidence, but also perhaps conviction and/or need—to aim for wisdom.”

Do you agree with that, as an assertion? What might an essay on this topic about different mid-career poets who write from a spiritual foundation: Donald Revell, Jean Valentine, and Fanny Howe? Or some from the next generation under that one: Dana Levin, G.C. Waldrep, Kazim Ali?

Hoagland’s essay about spirituality does not have to be an argument for poets “of clarity, [who] write in plainsong, which employs a simplified vocabulary, speech accessible to almost any reader.” The type of poets who write lines like:

I walk back across the mown lawn
loving the smell and the houses
so completely it leaves my heart empty.

Which Hoagland then praises for its understatement. Whatever the merits of this poetry, understatement is not it.

This is a large issue, with a lot of room for discussion, but, simply,  this essay isn’t it.

And we end with an interesting but simplistic diagram. Taa-daa.


At 7/07/2011 10:10 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I should really subscribe to some of these magazines, as I'd love to get a copy of this essay in its entirety. Maybe the NYPL has a copy floating around.

Anyway, this whole thing seems like a red-herring so Hoagland can get up on his soapbox and profess his nostalgia for "the good old days." I just don't get it.

As you pointed out, people have written in all types of manners and aesthetic styles in practically every epoch. This seems to be a poet bemoaning a time of unprecedented openness in poetry, which is strange, to say the least.

At 7/07/2011 11:44 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

He's not talking about the long view of literature, he's talking about the ten to twenty year horizon of fashion in graduate writing programs. From that standpoint, I can see how he might say Gregg, Howe and Hirshfield are outsiders, or unfashionable. I can see also why he would speak of their separate but similar appeals to authenticity as a renewal of spiritualism in poetry. Your list of countersuggestions seems equally valid, as might mine: Moxley, Rehm, or even Mlinko. But it's neither here nor there.

The problem, as you point out early on in the post, is that he is confusing the ten to twenty year horizon of fashion in graduate writing programs -- what passes for power in poetryland -- for a subject of universal interest.

At 7/07/2011 12:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree with you, as I also agree with Fuzz, above. What bothers me about his (Yes, his actual poetry choices are valid, as you say) presentation which is masking an argument, is that he’s conflating several issues.

First, as you say, he’s conflating the reigning poetry style of the 90s (I’ll use Linda Gregg as the placeholder name for the style) with the long view of literature. But in so doing, he’s also asserting that they’re unfashionable. I think it’s much less that they’re unfashionable (these poets are omnipresent at writer retreats and festivals and awards ceremonies, etc) as they’re not the only game in town. Now, rather than owning the place, they’re one of several options (as Fuzz is saying). To argue against this, Hoagland has to continually argue against your list and my list of also valid lists. So, in my reading, his essay is not a tagging of a new content area or situation, as much as it is a nostalgia for 1990. I guess that’s pretty much what you were saying as well.

But his second conflation (or one of his conflations) is the way he’s pairing poetic methods as if they were connected or opposed. His use of “simplicity” “understatement” “sincerity” “attentiveness” “clarity” “wisdom” etc, are all highly problematic. When we run one flag up the flagpole we don’t need to burn all the other flags. We’re not playing a game of Highlander here (though I do drive one).

His error, I guess, is mostly a failure of imagination. He also lacks style, but that’s a different conversation.

At 7/07/2011 1:36 PM, Anonymous DL said...

I was pretty disappointed in the article, not least because of the equation that spiritual content = an easy availability of meaning and a simplicity of form. As counter-example, Brenda Hillman, to my reading, is just as *obviously* spiritually inclined in her work as Hirshfield, while using unconventional poetic means. As well, Hillman, refreshingly (to me), refrains from watering down complexities of meaning by embracing paradox, opposites and uncertainty (all centuries-old hallmarks of mystic investigation, by the way).

I was also disappointed by another equation his essay offers: that to be spiritual is to carry, like a badge, easily recognizable religious affiliation. As we know, one can be deeply spiritual, can import that as an obvious signature in one's poetry, without holding or announcing any kind of religious affiliation. It would have been interesting to see TH tackle such material in his essay.

At 7/07/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree--It seems I'm agreeing with everyone today--he's taking the easy way out. He does this when it comes to form. When it comes to other things, like race, for instance, he gets much more shifty and interesting, while staying problematic. But he likes to be problematic.

I doubt he'd be interesting talking about Hillman (or any of the poets on my list or on Jordan's list), which is too bad, as there is a conversation to be had. He's not really interested in the way they work the subject, he's interested in their aesthetic position of accessibility, clarity, this thing he's calling plainsong.

At 7/07/2011 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He also lacks style"


Thank you for that. I've met him. That's funny.

At 7/07/2011 2:38 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Don't get me wrong! Power in poetryland is a subject of endless interest to a few people I can think of. (Me, for starters.)

At 7/07/2011 5:25 PM, Anonymous Kazim Ali said...


it is very funny because I am exactly in the process of writing an essay on faith and poetry which examines, among many many others, all of the writers you mentioned in the hypothetical essay you wish for: Howe, Valentine, Revell, Waldrep and Levin...

Also the way Lucille Clifton tackles spirituality is far, far more complex than anyone including those who purport to privilege her work have given her credit for. Just read "some jesus," "tree of life," "brothers" "message from the ones" and "oxherding pictures" all together and you will see what I mean. "Simple" and "wisdom-seeking" don't cut it as descriptions of her work.

But that's a side point I think.

My essay is supposed to come out in the winter; I'll let you know--


At 7/07/2011 5:30 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/07/2011 5:32 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed, let me know. I'm interested. One of the things I want to stress is that my problems with the Hoagland essay are about his frame. He tends to frame all of his essays this way, and I wish he'd stop. It isn't a good reading of the poets he's presenting.

At 7/07/2011 5:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Gary! Oh no, I agree. Oh my. I agree with you. Fascinating.

Absolutely fascinating.

At 7/07/2011 6:15 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/07/2011 8:22 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Aren't we all giraffes--avatars of compassionate communication--grazing on the infinite plain of Spirit? Doesn't the Muse enjoin on us all the prima facie obligation to flourish spiritually throughout this abyss of benighted wandering we call a ball turret? Empirically scrutinizing the lineaments of spirituality leads to the ineluctable conclusion that any poem--lucid or obscure, steadfastly direct or oscillating like parallel resonance antennae bristling from a cloud-of-unknowing castle--conduces to sincerity and a life-affirming faith in the Spirit's anointing power. Stringency of spirit, after all, foments a semantic chaos in which government by parameters, of parameters, for parameters, buys the ring-tailed lemur farm, whereas magnanimity buoys the ring-tailed lemur farm through ontological typhoons. In the final analysis, the profundity of a poem's spiritual resonance will equal the depth of the poet's religious convictions divided by the resistance. I think we're all agreed on that.

At 7/08/2011 6:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, that's the positivist position. There are others, right or wrong.

At 7/08/2011 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the profundity of a poem's spiritual resonance will equal the depth of the poet's religious convictions divided by the resistance. I think we're all agreed on that."

Something tells me the curve isn't quite that linear. You might be missing an exponent somewhere. Would you mind drawing a graph?


At 7/08/2011 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic. Preachy poetry is inevitably bad poetry, but is that what Hoagland is advocating? My own Catholicism inexorably invades the poetry that I write, but hopefully I manage to avoid testifying and preaching in my religiously "tainted" poems. :-)


At 7/08/2011 9:30 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 9:32 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 9:53 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I was just reading an essay that everyone should read -- nay, must -- that discusses that Buddhist anthology.

At 7/08/2011 10:40 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 10:50 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 10:55 AM, Blogger skholiast said...

"I would like to hear one anecdote of someone being called, pejoratively, sincere. And then had a reaction of embarrassment."

Here's an outlier case: Harold Bloom says it about C.S. Lewis:
"I myself, who have read all of Lewis' poetry, can find in it only the truth of Oscar Wilde's observation: 'All bad poetry is sincere.'"

Of course, Lewis is (1) not really thought of for his poetry; (2) unlikely to have been shamed by this, and (3) was also dead at the time, so, no, it doesn't serve as a counter-example. I suspect if I looked hard enough I could find several other places where H.B. has dropped the same Wildeism, perhaps closer to home; but that's too much work. In any case, I'm guessing that Wilde is the font to which the modern motif of suspicion of sincerity can be traced, and maybe it is really this that Hoagland is trying to get at. Not that this is your main point.

Sorry that this comment got attached to the wrong post originally.

At 7/08/2011 12:59 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

That's a good essay too. Everybody should put on pantaloons -- on their foreheads, maybe -- and... no, the real news will have to wait.

At 7/08/2011 1:01 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

I propose a contest! Let's see who can include the MOST NAMES in a comment.

At 7/08/2011 1:18 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of sincerity ...

Motokiyu, says Johnson, created the Yasusada writings in an attempt to "imagine another life in the most sincere way he knew how...only by remaining hidden could he accomplish that."


I mean, it is intended as ironic, right?

At 7/08/2011 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again an interesting subject steered Kent-centric. Zzzzz.

At 7/08/2011 2:13 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

If _____ ______ says it, it must be true.

At 7/08/2011 2:31 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/08/2011 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the Yasusada episode (unknown to me before visiting this blog) provides a nice, slant-wise perspective on the question of poetic sincerity. Quite on topic.

At 7/08/2011 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Gallaher, I see you're continuing to have a problem with your Johnson.

At 7/08/2011 4:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

There was a little mix-up and SK's comment here ended up under a different post. David Grove has replied there, so I'm going to post it here, to keep everythign all neat.

DG writes:


Is Wilde the font, or is it the anti-rationalism of the French Symbolists and Aesthetes who influenced him, Baudelaire and Pater et al.?

I mean, do you think the anti-rationalism of those movements engendered Wilde's almost Freud-like sense that human behavior isn't rationally motivated, that people are complex and contradictory? Since people are like that, when you try to sincerely express what you yourself think, what you write is likely to be distorted by some subterranean desire. Only when you're insincere--when you strike a pose or pretend to be someone else--do you express what you really think.

At 7/08/2011 5:05 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

SK and DG:

Speaking through the mask, yes. That works for some. A great example is the Anon function on a blog. This blog, say.

For some, Anon lets her/him be completely sincere. A comment unfiltered and outside of person. For others, however, it's a way to take pot shots. So there we go.

As for Wilde, one could read that as not about the role of sincerity at all:

All bad poetry is sincere.
This poetry is sincere.
Therefore it is bad poetry.

Doesn't follow logically. Therefore, good poetry can also be sincere. Wilde is saying that, I believe, sincerity is not something that makes a poem good or bad. It's not a criteria, though people keep trying to make it one. It's a shell game readers like to play.

At 7/08/2011 7:13 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Thanks for moving my dumb comments, and you’re right on: he didn’t mean sincere poetry’s bad, just that you shouldn’t think your poem good just because you think you meant it. But I think he also thought that thinking sincerity a criterion makes for bad poetry. Speaking through the mask enables you to express what you really feel without fear of social reprisal—and to fulfill your duty to be artificial. What I was trying to say to say earlier (I’m probably more articulate when I’m taking the piss) is that the anti-rationality of Aestheticism engendered love of artifice. Romanticism, Symbolism, Aestheticism, Surrealism—to me they’re all about anti-rationality, about the primacy of the individual’s passions over society’s moral conventions. The idea is to kill the priests who bind with briars your joys and desires. (I’m thinking of that photo of Peret in the act of insulting a priest.) (Catholic David, no offense intended; I'm strongly attracted to Catholicism.) So of course aesthetes would deny that art is for inculcating morals; they’d claim it should be admired for the beauty of its artifice alone.

At 7/08/2011 8:33 PM, Anonymous William S. Burroughs said...


At 7/09/2011 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In creative writing class (Fall 2004), Tony divided all poets into Mannerist and Sincerist. Sincerity was equated with simplicity. Difficulty was equated with insincerity, dishonesty, and posturing. Mannerist poets were poets who cared too much, in Tony's eyes, about semantic beauty and virtuosity, which he blamed for the unpopularity of poetry. When Tony doesn't understand something, he thinks someone is willfully obfuscating in order to get away from the truth. Tony then proceeded to attack and ridicule a number of poets he perceived as insincere and difficult and therefore Mannerist: Susan Mitchell (particularly disturbing as he'd just beaten her out for a job at Houston), Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Strand (!), April Bernard, Dylan Thomas. It is odd that these were the writers he was presenting as the aesthetic left, but whatever. He then praised those poets he praised as Sincerists--Adrian Blevins, Tom Sleigh, Lewis Warsh, and Adam Zagajewski. The class was a hot mess.

At 7/09/2011 7:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Typo in penultimate sentence of my comment. The sentence should read, "He then praised those poets he perceived as Sincerists--Adrian Blevins, Tom Sleigh, Lewis Warsh, and Adam Zagajewski."

At 7/09/2011 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting. When I read something and don't "understand" it, my initial reaction is to think I haven't spent enough time with the work, rather than accusing the author of "obfuscation" or "obscurantism."

What's even more interesting, to me, are the implications such a view has for Hoagland's definition of "spirituality" itself. "Authentic" (or "sincere") spirituality must be...simple and clear?

Takes on spirituality that are (or appear, at first glance, to be) neither simple nor clear are...inauthentic? Insincere?


At 7/09/2011 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also wonder what Hoagland would say about a number of younger poets whose work is sited not only within "spirituality" as a vague, amorphous concept but also within explicit, particular religious traditions--and yet partakes of many or all of the formal qualities we associate with "difficult" (innovative, a.g., whatever) poetry. John names three; I would add (off the top of my head) Lance Phillips, David Mutschlecner, Karen An-hwei Lee, Catherine Imbriglio, Bhanu Kapil, Peter O'Leary, et al.

Sometimes complexity is the testimony, Tony.


At 7/09/2011 12:35 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/09/2011 3:58 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

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At 7/09/2011 8:11 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 9:44 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Also, in the history of language poetry, the journal Apex of the M made a big deal about its return to sincerity/religion/mystical experience/lyricism. Where are they now, I'd ask, except that I don't care. (Exception: Pam Rehm.)

I understand Hoagland's wariness about writers who are willfully obscure; I don't understand making them out to be dishonest, though. They just don't go far enough. Same with everyone else, most of the time.

At 7/11/2011 10:12 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

> a bonus prize

Gary, everybody has somebody who cares about them. And would probably care a lot more about them if they would stop demanding to be loved for their poetry.

At 7/11/2011 10:59 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

And now I need to go back and reread the tables of contents of Apex of the M.... Sheesh. Poetryland! All those actual people, with lives and feelings... and no respect at all for anyone else's time.

At 7/11/2011 11:54 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 11:58 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

There may be people no one cares about. I think there are such people.

When I lived in Ann Arbor there was a wanderer about town we called Mr. Noface. He had a ghastly gaping red hole where his face should have been. Somtimes he was masked, sometimes not. I heard the hole was the result of a botched suicide attempt. My guess is he put a shotgun under his chin, pulled the trigger with his toe, and missed his brain.

He may have had family and/or friends, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was all alone in the world, if no one cared two cents about him. Everywhere he went he was less welcome than a repo man.

I heard he was legally required to wear the mask, but how could that be? You can't arrest people for being ugly.

But maybe we should, because ugliness inflicts pain. Maybe everyone behind bars for victimless crimes like drugs, prostitution, and gambling should be released and replaced with a painfully ugly person.

At 7/11/2011 12:47 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 2:30 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 5:29 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 6:44 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/11/2011 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“It is much harder to write about difficult things with simple words than it is to write about simple things with difficult words.”

Is this to suggest that all poetry must be about "things?" How narrowly or broadly would you define thingness?

I'm not trying to be annoyingly Heideggerian. But I read about a (possibly apocryphal) exchange where Wallace Stephens accused Robert Frost of writing poems about "subjects." Frost retorted that Stevens wrote poems about "brick-a-brack."

Both men, evidently satisfied with the others' characterization, left it at that.


At 7/11/2011 11:27 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/12/2011 1:09 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/12/2011 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I believe that these issues can be addressed plainly without literary contortion and distortion. The subject itself is already mysterious...what point in making it even more so when addressing it?"

I suppose it comes down to what a writer is trying to accomplish with the word / world relationship, whatever his or her take on it may be.

In both literature and the visual arts, I think one approach to subject matter (broadly defined) is to defamiliarize it. There are many ways to do this. Some of them involve perspective, while other involve subversion of the language itself (visual or verbal).

We don't have to second guess history by looking at second rate contemporary imitators of Ashbery (a group I aspire to join someday). Look at Stein. Look at the cubists.

I'd suggest they were apprehending the world in a very different way from their contemporaries like William Carlos Williams and Edward Hopper.

Happily I like work all by all these people, but I don't go them for the same kinds of experience.

At 7/12/2011 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgot to sign the Williams / Hopper / Stein / Cubist comment.


At 7/12/2011 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I add two names? Collins and Celan. Which is more sincere? How odd that they appear to have been separated at birth.

At 7/12/2011 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Forgot to sign the Williams / Hopper / Stein / Cubist comment."

Paul, for a moment I misread "comment" as "movement." I wanted to sign on too!

But I guess it is too late for that.


At 7/12/2011 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like all that you need for a movement is someone to declare it. Doesn't matter if any of the members of said movement know of each other or the instigator (I'm not in the least dissuaded by Ms. Stein's reluctance to answer my emails).


At 7/12/2011 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

True. The Surrealists inducted all sorts of people--many of them dead--into their movement, both during and after the fact.

So, are you declaring?


At 7/12/2011 8:13 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/13/2011 6:16 AM, Blogger Jordan said...


Here's the thing -- I'm not sure there can be poets like Ashbery et al. As with all sui generis rockstars, they're inimitable, or rather their successes are not reproduced by imitators -- including themselves.


At 7/13/2011 7:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jordan, you write:

"not reproduced..."

Something about this fascinates me. I've not thought much about what is or isn't reproduced by other artists. I get what you mean, it's just something I've not spent much time thinking about, as this feels different from "influence." I suppose it would have to be unintentional reproduction you're talking about, for who would want to reproduce another writer? Extreme influence?

At 7/13/2011 11:03 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, I'm afraid it's one of those "does anybody really know what time it is" questions -- I'm of the old (fogey) school that wants to believe that if a writer's any good, one of the ways you can find that out is by trying to imitate them and failing to recreate what's best in their work.

Everybody used to think William Carlos Williams was readily imitated, for example, but no offense to the memory of long-suffering Met fan Joel Oppenheimer, there was more to it than short line breaks, visual descriptions, and an alternatingly detached and pissed-off tone.

At 7/13/2011 11:50 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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At 7/13/2011 11:55 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Do the two (language skills and originality) separate that cleanly for you?

At 7/13/2011 12:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I must be from an alternate fogey company. I just don't get it when people talk this way. What I mean is, I hear what they're saying, what you're saying - I just don't understand it. I've never been much for that sort of creativity, I guess. But I like most of the poets you like, I think. So it must be a different way of saying something I agree with. Maybe?

At 7/13/2011 12:32 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Gary -- right? But try listening to the Top 100 of any given year. At least a third of the songs will be transparent knockoffs of songs that hit first, and bigger, recently.

I'd rather have several covers of the original than the imitations -- I prefer Bonnie Guitar's original of "Dark Moon" to Gale Storm's cover, but they're both pretty great.

At 7/13/2011 4:51 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


Fair point. I don't even know which hoary monster of the late great English Department I'm parodying with this piffle about the inimitable and signature and Kierkegaard.

But I've read a lot of Ashbery imitators and they're just wrong.

Actually, ditto the Tao Lin clones. Not to put JA and TL together in a room or anything.

At 7/13/2011 6:43 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

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